Three years ago, in the now-defunct Five Points Pub, two South Carolina bands were headed in different directions. Columbia’s Calculator was petering out; the gig would be the Tyler Morris-led quartet’s last show. Surfside’s Octopus Jones was seemingly on the rise; a few months later, the then-quintet would release its bouncy debut, Treat Yourself, which drew equally from ’70s disco, ’80s New Wave and ’90s indie.
But Octopus Jones would eventually sputter. The band pared down to the trio of guitarist and singer Danny Martin, bassist Clay Carlisle and drummer Darrin Cripe. After Martin graduated from Coastal Carolina, he moved back to his hometown of Columbia. He reconnected with Morris, spending the summer going to shows and driving to Charleston to indulge in some late-night jams with Ryan Zimmerman, a producer and engineer who plays with regionally popular pop act Brave Baby.
But South Carolina had turned stagnant, too comfortable for Octopus Jones and for Morris. So they uprooted to North Carolina, settling in Raleigh in September 2012. Morris, who had started playing with Octopus Jones by this point, joined the rest of the band in February 2013.
“It was a needed change,” Morris says. “We were stuck. Sometimes, I think people just stay stuck [in South Carolina] if they play so much. I feel like it was a step toward being a band instead of people who just play music.”
Phantasmagoria, the band’s new long-player, is redolent of a band that’s radically reinvented itself. Upon moving to Raleigh, three-fourths of the band lived in the same house, on eight acres of land on the outskirts of the Triangle. (The next-door neighbor, Morris claims, was NBA star John Wall.) The band jammed there, often until 3 a.m., and wrote and recorded, with Zimmerman, much of Phantasmagoria there, too. The album’s filled with a manic and weird energy that’s endemic of those late-night sessions, with Martin and Morris contributing an equal number of songs that shift and morph from rollicking spankwave to moody post-punk and sparse post-rock, like a tired mind that can’t focus on one thing for too long.
“It’s definitely a contrasting thing,” Morris says. “I feel like the album’s almost a Jekyll and Hyde-type thing, where there are two people fighting, in a way.”
The split songwriting duties broaden the band’s oeuvre. Martin’s twitchy ditties, such as surf-boogie opener “Afternight,” are propelled by a relentless funk verve. Morris’ crooners, like the cloudy “Sadata” and the moonlit “Downtown,” brood and bloom, filled with oblique imagery and a lithe, angular tension. Martin’s songs keep four on the floor, built on kinetic and elastic rhythms. Morris punctuates his meters in odd places and works his vocal lines against the beat, giving his standard-time songs a shadowy propulsion — something best observed during “Strange Satisfaction.” Martin yips and yelps, predicating his melodies on elastic vocal leaps. Morris smolders, mumbles and moans, wielding his deep voice like rumbling brass.
As much as Martin and Morris contrast, they complement each other rather well. Morris tempers Martin’s nerviness, and that added sense of calm expands the dynamics of jittery songs like “Don’t Touch My Tony.” In turn, Morris’ numbers get a boost from this siphoned energy: See “World of Steers,” given pep in its uptempo sections by Carlisle’s melodic bass line and Cripe’s steady drumming.
It’s clear the move north was a good one: Octopus Jones’ songs have become sharper and more fluid. The relocation has worked out strategically, too. The Triangle is closer to Washington, D.C., where the band’s already made inroads, and it positions them close to target cities like Philadelphia and New York.
“A lot of this is us learning who we are as a band, especially when having to mix my style up a little bit,” Morris says. “I think this is just us showing people what we are. This is just us.”
Octopus Jones plays New Brookland Tavern on Saturday, Jan. 25. New Brookland Tavern is at 121 State St. in West Columbia. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.; admission is $5, $8 under 21. With Co., Stagbriar, Elonzo, Mechanical River. Call 791-4413 or visit newbrooklandtavern.com for more information.
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